Light Rail – Back to the Future!

By Brodie Blades.


Some readers of this article may be able to remember the advent of modernism in Australia, with the promise of its ‘modern comforts’ and the rise of affordable car ownership ushering in a new era in which a number of Australian cities happily tore up their existing tram systems. As an urban designer and a born-and-bred Queenslander, it physically brings a tear to my eye when I see just how extensive Brisbane's 1961 tram network actually was! Historically, however, light rail has always played a legitimate role in metropolitan transit systems, and the Victorian State Government's recent budget commitment of $3 million for planning and design works on a new Caulfield-Rowville tram service cements that legitimacy. As Victoria has not made a significant investment in new light rail infrastructure for some time, other Australian cities have and the question therefore arises regarding ‘lessons to be learnt’ from the contemporary experience of modern light rail investment in Australia.

The most obvious example of contemporary light rail investment in Australia is none other than the ‘G:link’ tram system in the city of the Gold Coast, constructed primarily in anticipation of the recently-concluded 2018 Commonwealth Games. The G:link was delivered by a PPP consortium that included the City of Gold Coast, the Commonwealth of Australia and the Queensland Government, who combined to invest over $1.5 billion (yes, billion) in constructing Stage 1 of the G:link -13km of light rail that connected the Gold Coast University Hospital (in the north) to Broadbeach (in the south). Since opening in 2014, Stage 1 carried over 21,000 passengers daily and contributed to a 23% growth in public transportation patronage in the Gold Coast between 2013-2016. Vehicular traffic was also reduced by 21 percent during the same period, and there is analysis to suggest that property prices increased by as much as 30% where within 800m of a G:link station. However, despite further investment in the expansion of the G:link system to Helensvale, there is also research to suggest that patronage has been declining in recent times as increases in the cost of a ticket simultaneously increased the attractiveness of existing bus and rail networks - and the private vehicle - as alternative transport options.

Similarly, the City of Sydney is also currently in the process of investing significantly in light rail as a transport alternative in the Central City, through the construction of 12km of light rail that runs from Circular Quay (in the CBD) to Randwick and Kingsford (in the City's south east). Dubbed the ‘CBD and South East Light Rail’ system, the intention is to connect the light rail with existing tram networks (such as the existing 12.7km ‘Inner West Light Rail’) to increase light rail capabilities in aspects of the inner city. The cost of investment is again significant, with some estimates placing the initial capital cost as high as $2.1 billion (for infrastructure only) that combines with an ongoing operational cost estimate of $938m over 15 years (a 'blow out' of over 70% on initial estimates). As the system is still under construction, it is premature to determine if the the return on the investment has been ‘worthwhile’ - but the fact that that the light rail will not have priority over private vehicles at signalised intersections will no doubt affect patronage.

Whilst both are useful contemporary case studies for the recent Victorian Government announcement, the blaring difference between Melbourne and the light rail experience of both the Gold Coast and Sydney is that Melbourne is already blessed the world’s largest existing light rail system (over 250km of track). Within this context, there is no doubt a stark difference in requisite capital investment (adding to existing infrastructure is cheaper than creating whole new networks) as well as the existing psyche of patrons (Melbourne passengers already largely embrace light rail as a transit option, with 203 million tram trips in 2015-2016 alone). What is clear, however, is that at face value a direct public transit link between Chadstone, Monash University and Rowville is a long overdue piece of the transit puzzle, and the announcement of preliminary investigations is pertinent timing in a climate where city-shaping transit investments are already underway (such as the Melbourne Metro, the Westgate Tunnel, level crossing removals, Regional Rail Link and – more recently – the Federal Government’s recent funding announcement for the Melbourne Airport Rail Link).

Interstate light rail examples highlight that the requisite capital for construction and operation is going to be high. Hopefully the investment is worthwhile in an age of impending transit disruptors (such as driverless car technology).

Do you have any experiences on contemporary light rail investment, or any thoughts on light rail investment in Australia? Share them in the comments below!

Further Reading:

Brisbane Tram Map (1961) - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trams_in_Brisbane#/media/File:BrisbaneTram1961.png

Melbourne tram route announcement - http://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-04-10/new-tram-route-for-melbourne-chadstone-clayton/9635720

G:link statistics - http://www.goldcoast.qld.gov.au/rapid-transit-6004.html

G:link opinion - http://theconversation.com/why-gold-coast-light-rail-was-worth-it-its-about-more-than-patronage-78190

Sydney Light Rail opinion - https://www.smh.com.au/national/nsw/cost-of-running-sydneys-new-lightrail-line-blows-out-by-70-to-938-million-20161209-gt7gjl.html



Sydney Light Rail map - http://sydneylightrail.transport.nsw.gov.au/map


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